A special publication on the occasion of Focus Bulgaria at viennacontemporary, 24-27 September 2015
Kamen Stoyanov At Hotel 1000 Columns, 2015, 80 x 120 cm.
EAST OF VIENNA, WEST OF ISTANBUL By Boris Kostadinov On geography Bulgaria is the focus country of viennacontemporary 2015. Seen from the perspective of contemporary exhibition practices the question of national presentation is laden with risks. As always, the question arises of who and what exactly is to be presented? What is the audience? What is the context? Normally, not everyone could be presented in such a “focus”, nor is this its aim. But an even greater danger lurks when we ask ourselves the question - which processes and phenomena (in the case of Bulgarian art) we could label as “national”. And in general what are the parameters of the “national” in current artistic practice which rather reformulate, globalise, deconstruct and finally completely blur and even negate the boundaries of the national. We know that the concept of “national” indicates a certain geographical territory with a relatively homogeneous population, culture, language, political organisation etc. But do such nations exist at all? Geographical borders almost never coincide with the boundaries of ethnic and cultural communities. Cultural geography often has nothing to do with political geography. The question becomes even more complicated if we look at concrete artistic production. Much of it is impossible to define based on some national or geographical principle. Still there must be some kind of order when the exhibition is a national one. Generally speaking - the contemporary art is a West European and North American phenomena. The system, the theory, the artistic and museum practices, the issues it deals with and the economics of contemporary art have their origins in these two geographical regions. But the rest of the world also produces a huge quantity of contemporary art. How could we define it? Okwui Enwezor terms it “art from elsewhere”. This concept is supposed to encompass all the diversity of art production outside Western Europe and North America. Could we explain Bulgarian art as “art from elsewhere”? I think not. In this case we should rather think in terms of a sub-region, the region of Eastern Europe. Perhaps after the boom and the great interest in Eastern European art in the second half of the 1990s nowadays it is not too original to use the concept of Eastern European art but it seems to me this is the most adequate way to explain Bulgarian art and put it into context. During my numerous trips to Eastern European countries and contacts with colleagues I found that the mechanisms and history of art in recent years in the region bear many similar traits. If we wish to understand these specifics we cannot dissociate the art of Eastern Europe from political, social and economic processes - from the fall of the Berlin Wall to this day. The entire region has a common history of a difficult transition from totalitarian regimes to democracy with the resulting societies finding themselves in a permanent state of repeating crises, untransparent and corrupt policies, labile civil societies, mutable cultural and educational practice, foreign cultural policies promoted through foreign cultural institutions etc. Nowadays this holds less true of countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, more so of Hungary and Slovakia and even more so of Bulgaria and Romania and is perhaps most true of certain former Yugoslav republics. If indeed we accept to view Bulgarian art as regional, it seems to me - we must conceptualise within an imagined “national” region of post-communist countries. 2
Even today, 26 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of Central and Southeastern Europe base much of their artistic production on their totalitarian communist past. This process was intentionally stimulated in the 1990s by Western foundations and cultural institutions operating in these countries and the subsequent fashion of Eastern Europe and the Balkans and later became a sort of internal necessity. This past needed to be made sense of and reformulated or it was an easier way to make your artistic statement that would make you recognisable in the West. The interpreting of the past also has very real reasons. Former communist countries remained to a certain extent connected to that past. They did not completely reform their art institutions and very often persons who were influential under Socialism have preserved their significant role in cultural policies. In this respect Bulgaria is no exception and many of the processes in contemporary Bulgarian art can be explained from this perspective. A Bulgarian art guide If you are a contemporary art goer but know nothing about the country and happen to be in the capital Sofia, you risk being completely disorientated and in the end not seeing anything that could be called contemporary art. It is somehow invisible in the public sphere. There are no contemporary art works in the urban public spaces. There is something called The Museum of Contemporary Art (SAMSI) but until recently it was closed for renovation work and when it opened, it had no consistent or significant activity. The museum in question is part of the so called National Exhibition Complex that was created in recent years to include The National Art Gallery, The Gallery of Foreign Art and The Museum of Contemporary Art, a major representative project of the government that still lacks a clear idea and program. Of course there is contemporary art in Bulgaria but if you’re looking for it and do not see it you’d best find some local to tell you where to go. If you’re interested in public museums The Sofia City Art Gallery often displays exhibitions of contemporary artists and is the only one to possess a collection of contemporary art. This is why for this edition I invited Maria Vassileva who is a curator there to tell us about the work of this museum. In Sofia there are no actually functioning commercial contemporary art galleries. The market is very small and this makes it difficult for a gallery to stay afloat for long. They come and go as it’s difficult for them to accomplish their commercial goals. Thus the instability and short life of most private initiatives in the art world in Bulgaria has sadly become one of their main features. At present the only Bulgarian gallery to professionally work with contemporary artists, have a curatorial and an educational program and participate in international events is Sariev Contemporary, located in Bulgaria’s second largest city Plovdiv. This is why I invited Emile Ouroumov to write a text about this gallery and the related Open Arts foundation in the cultural and historical context of Plovdiv. Also in Plovdiv is The Center for Contemporary Art - a project of The Art Today Association with 21 years of history. Contemporary Bulgarian art is as a whole concentrated in Sofia and Plovdiv. This is where most all non-profit art organisations, associations and art collectives are.
Kamen Stoyanov At Hotel 1000 Columns, 2015, 80 x 120 cm.
On the need of critique I am convinced a critical look at the contemporary Bulgarian scene would be particularly useful and would explain much of the national phenomena and particularly the problems. What’s more, in the years following the democratic transition this sense of critical analysis has not developed. No serious theoretical or critical visions have emerged which could give a truly professional assessment of what goes on. Like any other small national scene “debates” take the shape of gossip within the art community rather than that of truly professional arguments. There are many reasons for this lack of a serious critical perspective – there is no adequate education, there is the provincial tendency to not speak openly and with arguments. There are Bulgarian professionals who possess know-how accumulated in Western cultural institutions but they don’t live in Bulgaria and what goes on there is of no direct interest to them. Such is the case of Ilina Kolarova who lives and works in Leipzig and whom I’ve invited to share her opinion on the visibility of Bulgarian art in the international context. Focus Bulgaria is intended for an international audience so it would be good to outline here not only the position of the art but also more generally of contemporary Bulgarian reality and its products such as cultural policy, institutions, personal examples, initiatives and practices. Which are the things we must know? Contemporary art in Bulgaria is a sort of “underground”. It is not a social need, nor is it supported by state institutions. In all these years since the end of the socialist regime the state hasn’t viewed contemporary art as a means of positive selfpresentation. It is a tradition and a scandal that Bulgaria does not take part in the Venice Biennale. Generally speaking the word “contemporary” has no clear meaning in the context of Bulgarian political reality. The government funds projects for restoring antique and medieval fortresses, building them anew entirely without any resemblance to their original outlook and transforming them into a kitsch touristic Disneyland. The most expensive Bulgarian exhibition abroad in 2015 was of antique Thracian gold treasures at the Louvre. Pompous monuments of medieval rulers with no artistic value have sprung up in Sofia. On the official level Bulgaria is looking only to its past which shows a lack of a clear vision or program for the future and contemporary art is therefore useless to the political elite. I already mentioned that education in specialised art academic institutions is archaic and inadequate and does not give students a real knowledge of the art system and current practices in the international context. The media in Bulgaria have no interest and do not present contemporary art. Their influence is rather negative as there are linked to the abovementioned political class and preach its values – the past glory of the nation, unique old crafts and traditions, conservative art. This media environment which provincialises and folklorises the meaning of art in combination with popular mass culture in Bulgaria dominated by chalga (cheap pop-folk music for the masses promoting superficiality and a lack of clear morality) make the environment extremely unfavourable for contemporary art. In the 1990s Western foundations operating in Bulgaria such as the Soros Center, Pro Helvetia and KulturKontakt promoted contemporary standards which strongly stimulated not only art production and new projects but also the emergence of
contemporary thinking as a whole. After their withdrawal from Bulgaria there has been a clearly visible drop in artistic production and a crisis of ideas. This fact unfortunately shows Bulgarian art needs some external stimulus and borrowing of ideas for its development. Currently a private Swiss foundation once again functions as the main stimulus for young Bulgarian artists. This is why I spoke with Gaudenz B. Ruf about the ideas and goals of The Awards for Contemporary Bulgarian Art. Professionals in Bulgaria have failed to create their own significant platform which could work in their interest and make them an important factor in society. Again the reasons for this are numerous. Art is usually disengaged from public life. It is not directly critical, analytical or activist about the social, political or economic conditions of the environment. Even among the artistic circles there is no debate and analysis leading to an active and sustained civil agenda. There is a lack of thinkers who could not simply make sense of current phenomena but also elaborate a conceptual framework that would help Bulgarian art find its subjects and shape and be recognisable and visible in the international context. The art community is divided and this is a major obstacle to the creation of contemporary art lobby. This unfavourable environment for art in Bulgaria is the reason much of the Bulgarian art scene is outside the country. Bulgarian curators and artists have been living abroad for a long time preferring to develop in a more adequate cultural and artistic infrastructure. This brings us back to the issue of the national. It somehow goes beyond geographical territory. All this may sound overcritical and a bit in contrast with the idea of a national presentation at viennacontemporary 2015. Therefore to balance it we should mention a peculiarity of the Bulgarian national character – individualism. It sometimes does damage but sometimes gives exceptionally good results. Problematic work in a community transforms completely when one or another Bulgarian artist presents individually at the international level. In such cases the reactions of gallerists, curators and directors of museums to Bulgarian art are always positive. This individualism often infuses positive energy into the country’s art scene – new festivals emerge, new initiatives and collaborations, artist-run spaces are opened, creative industries are developing more than in the past. Boris Kostadinov is a curator and art critic. He lives and works in an international context between Vienna and Sofia. His projects explore the interaction of art with political and geopolitical realities, economics, social processes and theories: economy of art, art as a social or activist gesture and art as a political platform. The second guideline of his work is art and technology. He works in various projects with the Independent Curators International in New York and works.io in Budapest. He has curated recent projects for Radiator Gallery, New York; IG Bildende Kunst Gallery, Vienna; bäckerstrasse4 Gallery, Vienna; the Center for Contemporary Art, Plovdiv. Boris Kostadinov has authored many texts in catalogues and specialized publications.
Interview: THE YOUNG ART OF BULGARIA Interview with Gaudenz B. Ruf
Ivan Moudov Performing Time, 2012, HD Video, duration: 24 hours
B.K.: I remember the second half of the 1990s and the residence of the Swiss Embassy in Sofia. Then by your idea this place has become one of the places in the town presenting contemporary Bulgarian art. What was your motivation to start with this project? To what extent it was an idea to stimulate Bulgarian artists, or it was a diplomatic gesture, or it was provoked by the passion of collecting art? G.B.R.: When I came to Sofia in 1995 the socialists were just back in power and I could not believe what I saw: The old communist ideas and behaviour had survived as if 1989 had not happened. On the other hand I realized that there was a thrilling and open young art scene and excellent art equalling the Western production. But they were completely ignored by the official circles. So I decided to do something about it and to send a signal by officially inviting these “nonconformist” artists to present their works in the Swiss residence. One might say that the beginning of my commitment to Bulgarian contemporary art was a political gesture, not so much “diplomatic” but rather subversive. Of course my passion for collecting art was also part of it. B.K.: Through your activities you know very well the processes in the Bulgarian contemporary art of the last 20 years. Could you give some more general assessment of all this time? What has changed - as artistic practices, institutions, names, trends, representation, market, etc? What are the positive and the negative aspects of this historical period? What is your impression of the young wave in the Bulgarian art? I mean not only artists up to 35 years, but also some new practices concerning official or alternative art spaces, festivals, artistic collectives etc. G.B.R.: There is a mixed picture. Let’s start with some negative aspects. First of all the weakness of the official institutions. Most of them don’t have sufficient funds, many lack know-how and management capacities. If one might welcome the fact that the authoritarian behaviour of the former era is gone we are now faced with the opposite: a lack of leadership, competence and expertise. Another sad aspect is the development of the market. There is little interest in the wider public for art, especially contemporary art. Although there is an increasing number of private galleries there are very few buyers and not many artists can make their living of their art. The main reason for this is obvious: the dire economic situation of the country. Only very few can afford to buy art. Another point might be that art education is still marginal in the curricula of secondary schools. Most people in Bulgaria simply don’t know about it. But there are positive developments. In spite of – or maybe because of – the unfavourable framework conditions there is a great dynamism on the grass root level. Already in the 90s and again nowadays we witness the emergence of numerous art groups and associations which organize themselves successfully in a “self help” manner and surprise with their unconventional creativity. This bottom-up phenomenon, the alternative art space, is the particularity and great strength of the Bulgarian art scene. The internet plays an important role in it. And finally, the Bulgarian artists travel abroad. One might regret the aspect of a brain drain but it is a fact that they managed to introduce themselves in many art scenes outside – notably here in Vienna where some dozens live.
Pravdoliub Ivanov A Thought Within a Thought Within a Thought, 2008, Laser cut steel plate powder-coated in black, 125 X 160 cm.
B.K.: In 2007 was founded the Gaudenz B. Ruf Award for New Bulgarian Art. We can say that your award has become the most important private fund that stimulates young Bulgarian art. What were your objectives when you created this award and how they have evolved over the years? G.B.R.: During my years in Sofia and also later on I felt that the many talents in this country were not duly recognized, neither in Bulgaria where the public support was insufficient and private sponsors were almost absent, nor abroad where hardly anyone knew about them. After retiring from diplomacy I decided to help improving this situation. The Award which I created with the support of many Bulgarian friends had several objectives: First it was a financial incentive offering an award fee and the free participation in an exhibition and a catalogue. Secondly, it should provide an international platform thanks to an international jury and a bilingual English-Bulgarian website. Thirdly, it was meant as a demonstration of respect and appreciation for Bulgarian art by the fact that a Westerner cares about it and invests his time and money. And last but not least it should set artistic quality standards by demonstrating what an international jury considers noteworthy. As you know, four years ago the Award formula was changed into a Support Programme providing a contribution for the realization of projects by artists and art organizers. Its objectives are similar. B.K.: Bulgaria is a focus country of this year‘s viennacontemporary. An art fair is a place mostly for commercial activity. From this point of view - what is the significance and the meaning of the category „focus country“? How such a presentation is different and what should be shown from the Bulgarian scene at this year‘s fair in Vienna? G.B.R.: Basically it is the task of the organizers to define the meaning of a “Focus Country” within a commercial context. In my view it makes sense to give a country the opportunity for a more in depth presentation, all the more if it is not regularly present at international events. The question is: How to do it? It is very ambitious to give a comprehensive picture on a few square meters. Definitely some “highlights” of the country’s artistic production should be shown as a kind of appetizers. The selection procedure for this will require particular attention. On the other hand the visitors might also expect an overall view illustrating the full spectrum of institutions and artists of the country. A good presentation will have to satisfy both aspects. B.K.: You are invited to the official program of the fair - in the part with discussions related to collectors. How would you formulate the figure of the collector in Bulgaria today and why this figure is still so problematic there? G.B.R.: It is true, there are only few collectors in Bulgaria, especially of contemporary art. To explain this phenomenon we have to think about what it needs to become a collector. Firstly – very banal – it needs some money. It is a
sad fact that the real connoisseurs in Bulgaria are often not well off and the truly rich mostly don’t care about culture. The insight that art and even contemporary art belong to a certain lifestyle, as practised by the Western upper class, is emerging only slowly. Secondly a collector should have some knowledge about art history and the international art market. But as said before art education is still marginal in Bulgaria and the media only summarily report about art events. So it needs a special effort to be in the picture. And finally it takes a lot of courage to invest in contemporary art. Who would risk his money for an unknown artist? This is relevant for people in every country but especially for Bulgaria with her dramatic political and economic turbulences in the last decades and the absence of a regular art market with recognized values and a more or less transparent price system. Here an art collector must have a particular vocation and a strong will. B.K.: Going back to the beginning of our conversation and if we assume that the exhibitions in the Swiss Embassy were organized in a governmental institution and then we have the Gaudenz B. Ruf Award which is a private initiative - can we make some more general conclusions on the terms „public“ and „private“ in the context of Bulgarian contemporary art? Is there a balance and interaction between public and private cultural practices and policies? G.B.R.: It is obvious that it needs both, not only in art but just as well in economy, science, environment and most other fields of politics. Generally speaking the state should provide for the cultural activities the legal framework, the infrastructure and maybe part of the financing. Its duty is to think in long term values, care for standards and preservation. On the other hand the private sector is supposed to produce creative initiatives, reflect new trends and formats. It needs free space to develop, a strict corset would stifle its flourishing. In Bulgaria’s past era the state was overwhelmingly powerful with all the consequences for free artistic expression. Now it seems to me it is quasi absent. It might play a more active and supportive role. Gaudenz B. Ruf is a diplomat and collector of contemporary art. He was the ambassador of Switzerland in Sofia between 1995 and 2000. The Gaudenz B. Ruf Award was set up in 2007 and its aim is to promote and propagate artistic expression in Bulgaria in the field of visual arts and to focus in particular on the younger generation. He participates in the official program of the viennacontemporary - Focus Bulgaria in public discussions about the importance of collectors practices.
My homeland is not an exporter of contemporary art By Ilina Koralova
I was asked to write about the visibility of the Bulgarian art scene on the global artistic playground, since, having lived in Germany for the last 13 years, it is assumed that I have a better overview of the situation outside of the Bulgarian context. However, I am not in a position to claim that I follow and know about every exhibition that takes place in (Western) Europe, and this is even less so for the USA. Therefore, if after reading this text someone feels the need to contradict me, I would not object. I would actually be happy to be proved wrong, for what I am about to write is not entirely positive. It came about that I was involved in the organisation of this year’s German Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. Not surprisingly, I was asked by many colleagues where the Bulgarian pavilion was. My answer was always that, regrettably, there was no such pavilion. And that, generally speaking, Bulgaria’s participation at this Biennial – the most important event in international contemporary art – has been rather ephemeral over the years. Meanwhile, there have been 56 editions of the Biennial, which – for those who are not aware – takes place every two years. How often have Bulgarian artists officially represented their country there? Four or five times? I am not entirely sure, but I can certainly count the number of occasions on the fingers of one hand. The Biennial in Venice is unique in its structure, as it combines two independent sections – national contributions, and a large international exhibition conceived by an artistic director who is appointed by the Biennial Board. This means that having a “pavilion” – or let us say a place to exhibit Bulgarian art in Venice – does not depend on the goodwill of one curator. Also, the Board is not directly concerned with the choice of the artists representing a given country. This is entirely in the hands of the country itself. Do I need to state the obvious? That apparently the Bulgarian state, represented by its official institutions, sees no reason why the country should play any role on the international art scene? One may object and point out that Bulgaria is the poorest country within the European Union, with no spare means available for culture and art. Montenegro, an ex-Yugoslavian republic and one of the smallest countries in Europe, has been continuously present in Venice since 2009, not to mention Macedonia and other former socialist countries that are in no better economic situations. I believe that, before the financial aspect is even considered, it is a matter of being aware that culture can be a very powerful (political) tool. Being deprived of the possibility of being exhibited on a regular basis, and thus being seen by thousands of international art professionals, it is hardly surprising that no other Bulgarian artist apart from Nedko Solakov has ever made it to the international exhibition in Venice. The same applies to Documenta in Kassel, the second most important event on the art agenda, which draws the attention of the world’s art community every five years. These exhibitions, as well as similar events such as the Sculpture Projects in Munster, Manifesta, the São Paulo and the Whitney, as well as many other Biennials across the globe, are shows that are curated by a curator or a team of curators. This means that the selection of artists has a rather personal character, and depends on the special interests of the individual. And if that individual, i.e. the curator, has little knowledge, if any, of the current Bulgarian art scene, and even less time to research, there is very little chance of Bulgarian artists being invited. I am not saying that there have been no exceptions in the past, or that there are none today, but these can really be classified as “exceptions” of a coincidental character. In the meantime, with a certain sense of resignation, we almost take it for granted that no Bulgarians will be participating in the next important international exhibition, rather than that they will. There are several reasons for this, but they certainly have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of their work. After the end of the Cold War, between the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was a decade marked by a considerable interest in the Balkans and Eastern European art in general. It was the “craving” of the Western art market – understood in a broader rather than in a barely commercial sense – for new territories, fresh faces and original visual input, that made the region so attractive. Huge exhibitions such as After The Wall, The Body and the East, Blood & Honey: The Future’s in the Balkans, In the Gorges of the Balkans: Europe’s Art and Cultural Scene were presented at various important art institutions worldwide, and highly acclaimed by their audiences. And when the Istanbul Biennial – geographically “around the corner” from Bulgaria – was founded in 1987, rapidly establishing itself on the international art map, there were high hopes that the ambitiously developing contemporary Bulgarian art scene would come out of its isolation. One justification for these expectations was, amongst other things, the network of the Soros Centres for the Arts in the post-communist countries. It strove to prepare
the ground for future local art centres, financed by the respective governments and/or private patrons, in order to maintain culture on a long term basis. (Here I must also mention the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, which had a similar mission and also played a significant role as a supporter of the arts.) This is not the place to discuss the real reasons behind George Soros’ generosity. The fact is, however, that whilst the centres were in operation, art communities could count on financial support for their participation in art projects and exhibitions, both at home and abroad. Later on, some of the post-communist countries were able to organise themselves and take over in the spirit of the Soros Centres’ network. The sad truth is that Bulgaria did not succeed in making the transition, in holding the momentum. At this stage I must point out that the art circles themselves bear a fair amount of responsibility for the current situation. Due to their internal conflicts, and perhaps out of the fear of losing their newly gained individual artistic freedom after decades of imposed socialistic collectivism, Bulgarian artists, curators and art critics never developed a sense of community, in spite of a common desire to be accepted as “global players” in their own right. They never saw themselves as an entity capable of joining forces and continually exercising constructive pressure on the local political and cultural authorities, with a view to achieving a sustained cultural policy that would benefit everyone. That is why we will most probably not have a Bulgarian pavilion in Venice in the coming years, nor will we boast an adequate contemporary art museum that would enable interested curators from abroad to gain a comprehensive view of Bulgaria’s current art production. Twenty-five years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, we will continue to rely on the benevolence of others from the outside. Meanwhile, due to economic pressure and lack of perspectives a considerable number of artists have left the country in search of better living and working conditions. So what happens is that, when an exhibition featuring the contemporary Bulgarian art scene has been organised by foreign curators or institutions no matter in Europe or elsewhere, as a general rule the majority of the participants aren’t living and working in Bulgaria. And another paradoxical situation occurs: when invited to participate in a show in Bulgaria the artists apply for support in the respective country, in which they’ve chosen to live, for in their original land they are regarded as “foreigners”. Which in financial terms means – they aren’t eligible for support from Bulgaria. This text deliberately revolves time and again around the monetary side of the whole contemporary art business. Under the conditions of the neoliberal economy, the organisers of international art exhibitions and cultural events in general are placed under the enormous pressure of raising additional funds for their artists. It is not surprising, then, that they would rather choose artists who potentially bring in their “own” money. This means either that their galleries invest in the production with the intention of offering the work on the market for a profit at a later point in time, or their governments, cultural centres, local foundations or private sponsors support their participation. For the purpose of my text, this statement may seem exaggerated and somewhat bold, yet that is the way things work nowadays, whether we like it or not. For good or for bad, the times when contemporary art from the Balkans was “hot” and “hype” are behind us. Talented artists keep leaving the country. But we are no longer seen as poor, exotic, in need of help. What else can we say: we have the ball in our field now. It is time for us to strike. Ilina Koralova is an art historian and works as a freelance curator and project manager. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia. On behalf of ifa (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations), she worked as a project manager for the German Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia 2015. In 2012 and 2013 she held the position of project coordinator and programme curator for the transnational project “Europe (to the Power of) n”, a series of exhibitions organised by the Goethe-Institute. Koralova has worked as a lecturer at the Institute of Cultural Studies at the University of Leipzig since 2007. She was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig between 2002 and 2009.
Plovdiv: Ancient and Eternal Future By Emile Ouroumov
Vikenti Komitski Embracing Flags, 2013 digital photography Courtesy of Sariev Contemporary (Plovdiv)
It is not a straightforward task to try and sketch out an outline of the characteristics of this peculiar city, whose motto is “Ancient and Eternal”. Remote, mediumsized and relatively unknown to Western European visitors, Plovdiv is nonetheless a very special location. If we consider that a city is the sum of the desires of its inhabitants rather than the combined perspectives of the buildings and monuments, then perhaps the most stunning feature would be the mindset of Plovdiv’s urban dwellers. Were Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Franz Kafka and Alfred Jarry to focus their attention upon it, I take for granted they would successively declare Plovdiv to be the capital of eternal present, of dérive, of existentialism and of the ubuesque. For there is something striking about the mixture of pride and nonchalance displayed by Plovdivians, when invited to talk about their home town. They would tell you, in a tone gradually shifting from affected intonation, to one of detached observers, that the current insignificance of Plovdiv is but a veil hiding from view one of the most historically and culturally significant places. That it is Europe’s oldest city, if not the World’s. That the seven hills hosting its ethnically diverse population, have seen the rise and demise of a great number of empires (Thracian, Persian, Macedonian, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Kievan Rus’, Latin, Ottoman, Nazi, Soviet). They would tell you about their contempt for Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, where the best thing is the road sign indicating the direction of Plovdiv, and of their upcoming retribution, the city being chosen as a 2019 European Capital of Culture. That they do not need advice in terms of art and culture, inviting you for a stroll amidst the Roman amphitheatres and stadiums, the mosques, churches and clock-towers, the magnificent Bulgarian Revival houses of the Old Town, the museums hosting sculptures and paintings by renowned local masters, the European classical and modern architecture of the city centre, and maybe, the yet-to-enter-history and often threatened with extinction brutalist and social realist legacy of Communism, such as the abandoned Kino Kosmos. The present or the recent decades seem less of a concern to most of them, looking from the perspective of such a rich past; they would be less likely to expand on the rising shopping malls, business centres and residential projects whose consideration for urbanist thinking and architectural decency is akin to that of
a favela. Speaking of favelas, they would be no less unlikely to point you the direction of the Roma quasighettos. With such inclination for glories long past and reverence for tradition, in a place where the clock ticks with Oriental chimes, where urgency is often spelled “wait and see”, it is small wonder that up until now contemporary ideas about art and culture have gotten off to a slow start. Are there initiatives that run counter to the tendency of Plovdiv being no more than a provincial halt of the Orient Express? For a fact, there are; and though small in numbers, they are worth considering. Speaking of the art domain, there are a handful of galleries and institutions whose programming at times strays in the realm of contemporary; the aforementioned Plovdiv 2019 project that looks promising but of course has still to pass the test of materialisation; and the Centre for Contemporary Art housed in the 16th Century Turkish Baths, run by the Art Today Association. On the present occasion, I propose to focus on the ramifications of yet another structure, the Open Arts Foundation, whose resonance with the diversity and complexity of the city is stimulating. From its private gallery beginnings in 2004, originally focused on photography and ceramics, it has branched today in three structures: the multifaceted Open Arts Foundation (2007); artnewscafe (2008), a popular venue functioning as place for cultural discussions, library, and trendy hangout; and the commercial gallery Sariev Contemporary (2011), one of the rare if not the only Bulgarian gallery present on the international scene, participating in art fairs in Brussels, Istanbul and Vienna, representing some of the most relevant Bulgarian artists living in the country or abroad, as well as proposing innovative guest-curated exhibitions such as the first solo presentation in Bulgaria of Jirí Kovanda’s work. The variable geometry of the sum of these activities constitutes what its creators term a second-generation art institution, in regard to the first post-communist wave of institutional or informal art initiatives in the 1990s. The foundation itself is concerned with structural redefinition of what an institution could be, citizen participation, bottom-up approaches, and contextual inscription in its specific urban reality. Wishing to function as a laboratory or platform for projects, it has already spawned a number of
periodical events and publications. Amongst the dozens of programmes, we could mention Night/ Plovdiv, a large-scale festival of contemporary art and culture with a curatorial section; Plovdiv Alternative Map, an endeavour mapping the palimpsest nature of the city’s architectural layers, such as Bauhaus and Soviet-inspired architecture, A City Arbour, series of discussions on specific urbanist issues in Plovdiv, and so on. On the whole, the foundation, gallery and café, though distinct, are often in collaboration, and the various programmes of events also serve as a toolbox for further initiatives; for instance the Alternative Map is used for defining locations for the curatorial programme of Night/Plovdiv. Creating something of a multimodal urban oasis, the model of syndicating cultural and leisure activities seems to be functioning in the local present, in which discovering and discussing art are equally desirable. The model itself has been inspirational for some other smaller-scale structures. It has constituted a counterpoint to the prevailing traditional vision of culture and its taken-for-granted future, and demonstrated that art can also be inscribed in its present, regenerate a cityscape that has lost its perspectives, and engage real-life problems. We wish that such dynamism in turn revitalizes the local scene and brings forth a more and more ambitious art creation, all the while avoiding the extremes of gentrification or vague cultural consumption. Emile Ouroumov is a Paris-based curator. He has studied Visual Arts and museology (Paris 8 University) followed by Curatorial Studies (Paris 1 PantheonSorbonne University). He has assisted the curators Pierre Bal-Blanc and Hans Ulrich Obrist and has also gained experience at gb agency in Paris and MAMCO, Geneva. His most recent project, “Theatre of Operations” (Geneva) comprised specific interventions, shaping their own modalities of presence and means of mediation inside the theatrical model. “The Galápagos Principle” (Palais de Tokyo, Paris), explored the endemic particularities of the biotopes and their possible critical relevance for the art domain.
DREAM BIG, PLAN THE POSSIBLE By Maria Vassileva
On 13 September 2015, the Sofia City Art Gallery opened a major retrospective of Bulgarian-born artist Christo (Christo Javacheff) and Jeanne-Claude, his wife and collaborator. This could be an ordinary piece of art news anywhere else in the world, but not in Bulgaria. What makes it extraordinary is that this is the artist’s first official exhibition in his country of birth, organized with his approval, cooperation and financial support a whole 26 years after the beginning of the changes – a time in which the stigma on the artist as an émigré/“defector” should have long since been removed, and which should have seen his triumphant return to Bulgaria. The very fact that this did not happen for such a long time is symptomatic (it is happening now only thanks to personal initiatives, not as the result of a common, consolidated will). The Bulgarian state, which traditionally does not take part in the Venice Biennale and which has evidently found it unnecessary to appeal to its best-known artist in the world and to use him as its ambassador, obviously has serious problems with its development as a whole and with its understanding of the place and role of contemporary art in general. It is no accident, though, that this exhibition is taking place precisely at the Sofia City Art Gallery – an institution that has played a key role in legitimating contemporary art in Bulgaria in the last almost 15 years. If we go back another ten years or so and look at the Bulgarian art scene at the turn of the 1990s, we will see that many things had happened since then. After the closed, completely restrictive framework of the totalitarian system which prohibited any personal initiative and punished any attempt to break out of it, the picture of artistic life in Bulgaria had changed radically in a short period of time. In the first ten years or so after 1989, the first informal groups and nongovernmental institutions appeared, along with the figure of the curator; several artists won international acclaim; the first private art galleries were established (Ata-Ray, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, Akrabov, Lessedra, Irida, and XXL, to name a few); at least two generations of artists working with contemporary forms grew up; foreign institutions such as the Soros Center for the Arts, Pro Helvetia, and KulturKontakt, opened offices in Bulgaria; Bulgarian artists began to travel abroad, taking part in the biennales of Istanbul, São Paulo, Johannesburg, and Venice, and in prestigious international exhibitions such as Beyond-Belief, After the Wall, Blood & Honey, and In the Gorges of the Balkans. The truth, however, is that the interest of the rest of the world in what was happening in Bulgaria was short-lived. On the one hand, Bulgarian artists were quick to integrate into and to become part of the normal processes in international art. On the other, interest focused on the emerging markets in Asia. Most foreign foundations left Bulgaria and, unfortunately, none of them managed to build a self-sustaining structure that would continue their work. The first dozen years or so were followed by a period of stagnation and marginalization of contemporary art. The reason, admittedly, was that it was not accepted by the general public in Bulgaria and needed external mechanisms to legitimate it. The inertia of the previous decades, the established totalitarian structures, the retrograde way of thinking were and, regrettably, remain deeply rooted in the Bulgarian mentality. Resistance against the new was part of the specificity of the Bulgarian transition, which was as forward-looking as it was fixated on the past as a justification for the existence of millions of people. This was manifested in reality as a total invisibility of nongovernmental institutions and absence of dialogue with the state; absence of contemporary art from the cultural policies of the state as well as from the state-owned and municipal museums and art galleries; residence of artists in Bulgaria de jure but not de facto. That is when the joke was born that Bulgarian contemporary artists were using the country as a bedroom while working only abroad; hence, the subjects of interest to them had nothing to do with what was happening in their home country.
Borjana Ventzislavova We Are Nowhere and It’s Now, 2012, C-Print /Diasec on Dibond, dimensions variable
Daniela Kostova New Role Models, 2015, photo installation, dimensions variable Photography: Alex Geana, Nomi Ellenson
At this important, critical moment, the intervention of an institution such as the Sofia City Art Gallery (a museum founded in 1928 and supported financially by Sofia Municipality) was of significant importance. Well aware of the need for public recognition of contemporary art, the Gallery launched an active and very consistent policy of supporting it. This policy included the creation of an archive of contemporary art, establishment of a Department of Contemporary Art and Photography, integration of contemporary art into the museum collection of classic and modern art, and hence its natural inclusion into the history of Bulgarian art; development of programmes supporting young artists and curators, the most important and long-lasting one of them being Meeting Point; collaboration with the National Academy of Arts (one of the slowest-changing structures), the Sculpture Programme (both of these programmes are hosted by the Vaska Emanouilova Gallery, a branch of the Sofia City Art Gallery); adoption of a new, different model of work through network initiatives with various nongovernmental institutions; joint management, with the Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, of the Baza Award for Contemporary Art (part of an international network of awards); initiation of exhibitions that offer new perspectives on the history of Bulgarian art and question the theses promoted in socialist times (such as The Other Eye series, A Possible History, Art for Change, and The Choice); presentation of exhibitions of foreign contemporary art; development of educational programmes. As a whole, the Sofia City Art Gallery has created a favourable environment for displaying and viewing contemporary art. What is more, it champions the idea that contemporary forms of art have a place among those traditionally regarded as superior in Bulgaria. I am sure that in Bulgaria today there are still people who think that contemporary art is inferior to the classic genres, for example, but who realize they had best keep their opinions to themselves. Such views are voiced mainly by people from the “art establishment”, but the general public is much more open-minded and looks forward to being faced with new challenges. The Sofia City Art Gallery has radically changed the retrograde notion that the place of contemporary art is not in the museum (a notion promoted by directors of various national institutions, among others). This policy has led to changes in the policies of other, larger Bulgarian museums. In 2012 the National Art Gallery made its first acquisitions of contemporary Bulgarian art. Although they were incidental, there are expectations that the National Gallery, Bulgaria’s largest museum, will also adopt a consistent policy on contemporary art. In conclusion, let us return to what we began with. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which eloquently sums up their efforts but also accurately describes the policy of the Sofia City Art Gallery: “Mantegna: Do you have any unfulfilled dreams, or you fulfill them all? Christo: We try to fulfill our dreams. Jeanne-Claude: No, no, no. You have to understand: we never, never, plan the impossible.” Christo; Jeanne-Claude, G. Mantegna. Journal of Contemporary Art, 1995 Maria Vassileva is an art historian, art critic and curator. Chief curator at the Sofia City Art Gallery where she established the Contemporary Art and Photography collection. Her interests are in transforming the museum institutions and giving a mew meaning of the recent history of art. She initiated several programmes and awards for young artists.
Focus Bulgaria at viennacontemporary 2015 is the first overview of Bulgarian contemporary art at an international art fair. The project was initiated by Vesselina and Katrin Sariev (Sariev Contemporary and Open Arts Foundation), Elena Todorova (Hugo Vouten Collection), Iara Boubnova (Institute of Contemporary Art-Sofia) and Vessela Nozharova (Art Affairs and Documents Foundation). Focus Bulgaria consists of a thematic exhibition (curated by Iara Boubnova and Vessela Nozharova), of panel discussions and informal talks (curated by Dessislava Dimova), of historical comments on the context in the country, of quotations and explanations as well as of a publication (conceived by Boris Kostadinov). Exhibition Variofocus – ARTISTS The exhibition Variofocus – ARTISTS, curated by Iara Boubnova and Vessela Nozharova, takes place at the booth C16/C24. Variofocus – ARTISTS is showcasing the Bulgarian artists who are not only doing their job of creating artifacts with passion and dignity but often end up functioning as the unexpected substitute for the missing elements from the local institutional and artistic infrastructure. Artists-as-curators, artists-as-writers, artists-as-organizers, artists-as-managers, artists-as-dealers, artists-as-collectors, etc. (and sometimes vice versa…), they adopt a multitude of functions without ever ceasing to investigate the world around them and their place within this world. Participating artists: Adriana Czernin, Alexander Valchev, Aleksandra Chaushova, Alla Georgieva, Anton Terziev, Boryana Rossa, Borjana Ventzislavova, Daniela Kostova, Destructive Creation, Emil Mirazchiev, Dimitar Solakov, Georgi Dimitrov, George Ruzhev, Ivan Moudov, Ivan Kostolov, Ivo Bistrichki, Iv Toshain, Irina Georgieva, Iskra Blagoeva, Kalina Dimitrova, Kalin Serapionov, Kamen Stoyanov, Kiril Kuzmanov, Kiril Prashkov, Kosta Tonev, Krassimir Terziev, Lazar Lyutakov, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Lubri, Lyuben Kostov, Mariela Gemisheva, Monika Popova, Miryana Todorova, Nedko Solakov, Nina Kovacheva, Nikolay Zanev, Oleg Mavromatti, Petja Dimitrova, Plamen Dejanoff, Pravdoliub Ivanov, Samuil Stoyanov, Sasho Stoitzov, Stanimir Genov, Stefan Nikolaev, Stela Vasileva, Valentin Stefanov, Vasilena Gankovska, Veronika Tzekova, Vikenti Komitski, Vitto Valentinov, Zara Alexandrova, Zoran Georgiev, Yasen Zgurovski, Valio Tchenkov, Voin de Voin Open Call for Self Presentation Short video presentations of artists are displayed at the booth parallel to the curated exhibition. The video presentations are selected after an open call. In their presentations artists have introduced themselves, particular artworks, exhibitions and the specificities of their art practice. The aim of the open call is to present an overall picture of what is to be an artist today, how does she/he reflects her/his position, what does her/his work consist of, how does she/he fit into the world around us, what are her/his problems. In the selection jury are the curators Iara Boubnova, Vessela Nozharova and Dessislava Dimova, organizer and gallerist Vesselina Sarieva and Gaudenz B. Ruf – collector and supporter of Focus Bulgaria. Talk programme Objects moving minds in space is a series of talks and conversations conceived and moderated by Dessislava Dimova, within the presentation of Focus Bulgaria. The artist talks are centered on material objects, chosen by each artist. These objects become the beginnings of stories, methods of research, or simply ways to involve the public into a conversation. A series of discussions that will take place around the BG Bar by artist Nedko Solakov takes over the topics of the exhibition proposed by the curators Iara Boubnova and Vessela Nozharova. “Economy”, “Identity” and “Production” are at the heart of a polemic about the conditions of contemporary art in Bulgaria. Together with a moderator and a provocateur, the participants in each discussion will try to identify those important questions, which we usually fail to address publicly. In the framework of viennacontemporary talks program Keys to Contemporary Art Dessislava Dimova will also direct the conversation piece Focus Bulgaria: Variable in appearance, sometimes vaporous, sometimes as plastic paste. 27.09., 3.30 pm at viennacontemporary Talks area 20four7 – Contemporary Collecting: Spotlight Bulgaria – which role do fine arts play in the country that joined the EU in 2007? Collectors talk with Nedko Solakov, Gaudenz B. Ruf and Spas Roussev moderated by Rainald Schumacher. 25.09., 2 pm at viennacontemporary Talks area
ФOCUS:BULGARIA Publication Focus Bulgaria includes a publication which not only reflects the whole project, but also makes the audience familiar with some of the important aspects of the situation of Bulgarian contemporary art. The publication is conceptualized and developed by Bulgarian Vienna-based curator Boris Kostadinov. The publication is available for free at the Focus Bulgaria booth. Focus Bulgaria is organized by the Open Arts Foundation and Sariev Contemporary, Plovdiv, in cooperation with the Institute of Contemporary Art-Sofia and the Art Affairs and Documents Foundation. It is kindly supported by Gaudenz B. Ruf (Zurich/Sofia), the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Bulgaria, the National Culture Fund, Bulgaria, the EVN Collection, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, and is organized in partnership with the BKI Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna, Ogilvy Group Bulgaria and Pulsio Print.
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evn_collection_Inserat_A4_hoch RZ.indd 1 Nedko Solakov, born 1957 in Cherven Briag, Bulgaria; lives in Sofia, Bulgaria Objects from Domestic Limits, 1998, Ø 8 cm. Object A: made from cotton thread, transparent plastic foil, chewing gum, amethysts, Bulgarian daily newspapers, fabric, baked dough, peel-off masque, aluminum foil, put one on top of the other in layers by Slava Nakovska, the artist’s wife; Object B: made from the same materials described above and in the same way, but in reverse order
Kunsthalle Krems 14.11.2015 – 21.2.2016
Nedko Solakov Drawing for A BG Bar, 2005 black drawing and wash on paper, 21 x 29,7 cm Courtesy of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (Vienna)
Nedko Solakov A BG Bar, 2006 metal, paint, oak wood (in the shape of Bulgaria), refrigerator, glasses, non-alcoholic beverages, bartender, white permanent felt-tip pen texts, drawings over black painted metal 121 x 443 x 295.5 cm Courtesy of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (Vienna) Installation view: Küba: Journey against the Current, Canetti House, Rousse, Bulgaria
Published by Open Arts Foundation and Sariev Contemporary Editor: Boris Kostadinov Texts: Boris Kostadinov, Gaudenz B. Ruf, Ilina Koralova, Maria Vassileva, Emile Ouroumov Design: Ogilvy Sofia Prepress: Georgi Lazarov, Studio Punkt Printed by Pulsio Print, Sofia, Bulgaria Circulation: 5000